When the alarm sounds at Jikei hospital in southwestern Japan, nurses run up a spiral staircase to collect abandoned newborns as quickly as possible in the medical center’s “baby box,” the only one in the country. .
If the mother is found, the nurses invite her to talk to learn the baby’s family history. Photo: AFP
This Catholic hospital in Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu, created this system in 2007, which allows a baby to be abandoned anonymously and also offers other services, such as a childbirth program without identification, the only one of its kind in the Asian country. These initiatives have earned the medical center criticism, but its boss, Takeshi Hasuda, sees them as a vital safety net.
“There are women who are ashamed and very afraid” because of the feeling of “having done something horrible” when they become pregnant, she explains to the AFP Agency. “A place like ours, which turns no one away, means a lot to these distressed young mothers,” she continues.
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When they hear the alarm, the nurses try to reach the “baby box” in less than a minute, decorated with a pair of storks and equipped with a small bed carefully prepared. “If the mothers are still around, we suggest they share their story with us,” says Saori Taminaga, a hospital employee.
The team tries to guarantee the health of the mothers, listening to them and giving them advice, and encourages them to leave information that will allow the child to know its origins later.
One of the reasons the system continues to have trouble gaining acceptance in Japan is that there is a traditional conception of the family, according to Chiaki Shirai, a professor at Shizuoka University and a specialist in reproductive and adoption issues. The country uses a family registration system that includes the births, deaths and marriages of a family through generations. This pillar of the administrative apparatus also shapes opinions about family structure.
The baby mailbox is a way to prevent child abuse, say specialists from Jikei Hospital in Japan. Photo: AFP
“This has entrenched in Japanese society the idea that someone who gave birth to a child must raise the child, to the point that children are almost considered the property of the parents,” explains Shirai. “Children who are abandoned and whose registration indicates that they have no family are strongly stigmatized,” she adds.
Abandoned baby mailboxes have been around the world for centuries, surviving for example in Germany, Belgium, South Korea and the United States. His return in some European countries in the early 2000s was criticized by the UN, which considered that it went “against the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents.”
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Jikei Hospital, however, sees its baby mailbox as a means of preventing child abuse in Japan, where the police recorded 27 child abandonments in 2020 and where 57 children died of abuse in 2019. According to Dr. Hasuda, some children taken in are “the offspring of prostitution, rape or incest”, and their mothers have no one to turn to.
In all, 161 babies and toddlers have been dropped off at Jikei since 2007, sometimes by people from across the country. Despite the anonymity offered by the system, child protection services generally try to find the family of abandoned children. In this way, about 80% of them have discovered the identity of their family, and 20% found their parents or relatives.
The hospital also proposes a maternity telephone assistance service, which receives several thousand calls a year, and an unidentified childbirth program aimed at avoiding unassisted home births.
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